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Merkel cell carcinoma is a fairly new diagnosis. Several decades ago, researchers determined that some skin cancers didn’t look or spread like most other known types of skin cancer; these cancers were eventually classified as Merkel cell carcinomas. A microscopic staining test was then developed to differentiate Merkel cell carcinomas from other forms of skin cancer. Now that physicians have a reliable way of diagnosing this unique malignancy, approximately 1,500 diagnoses are made each year in the United States.

If a physician suspects that an unusual skin growth might be Merkel cell carcinoma, a diagnosis can be confirmed or ruled out through a series of tests. The typical diagnostic process includes:

  • An initial physical exam – The first step in diagnosing a potential Merkel cell carcinoma is to assess the growth’s visual characteristics. A physician will make note of the size, texture, location, color and shape of the growth and ask the patient about any unusual symptoms he or she has experienced.
  • A biopsy – To determine whether a growth is Merkel cell carcinoma or a different type of skin cancer, a physician takes a small tissue sample from the growth and sends it to a laboratory for further analysis. This often involves the previously mentioned staining test, through which Merkel cell carcinomas can be differentiated from other types of skin cancer based on the way the cells react to a specific combination of chemicals.
  • One or more imaging scans – Unlike tumors that develop on a patient’s internal organs, Merkel cell carcinomas develop on the surface of the skin, so imaging scans are not necessary to find them. However, these cancers are prone to metastasis, and imaging scans are often necessary to determine whether the cancer has spread outside of its original location. 

Moffitt Cancer Center’s expert oncologists can provide individualized advice regarding a potential Merkel cell carcinoma diagnosis. To schedule a consultation, call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online. You do not need to ask your physician for a referral.